Photo by Erik Westra (@erikwestra) / Westra & Co. (unmodified & this license)

This year I went to MozFest for the first time and I left inspired and informed, with 500g of written journal paper full of things I learned and ideas that really resonated thanks to inspiring workshops and unexpected encounters.

MozFest is Mozilla’s annual event which takes place in London every year and is in its 8th year.

Mozilla — that’s the non-profit behind the browser Firefox, but they’re doing a lot more! From developing open source speech recognition software to sponsoring fellowships for researchers and activists, to publishing the so-called „Internet Health report“.

Photo by Connor Ballard-Pateman / @PinotConoir (unmodified & this license)

So, is MozFest a tech conference? Not really. It is an interdisciplinary, fully participatory, collaborative and playful event packed with more than 300 hands-on sessions, discussion panels and exhibitions throughout two days. At the very heart of MozFest is the idea of Internet Health. But what does it mean for the Internet to be healthy? The relevant indicators are: Privacy and Security (Is the internet safe?), Openness (How open is the internet?), Inclusion (Who is welcome?), Literacy (Who can succeed?), and Decentralization (Who controls the Internet?).

The Internet Health movement wants to ensure that the internet remains a force for good. Sessions at Mozfest are organized around these values and they look at how these values are threatened.

If you think about it, these values are not only relevant to the Internet and the tech world alone but also to a much broader societal context. MozFest is good at both leading the conversation into the broader interdisciplinary field (e.g. education, journalism, science) and illuminating technology practices and their “implementation details”.

Photo by Erik Westra (@erikwestra) / Westra & Co. (unmodified, this license)

Take for example the idea of Decentralization.

There are sessions covering the technical implications of Decentralization like net-neutrality, decentralized apps (d-apps), blockchain technology or guidelines for building decentralized community-based wifi networks.

Next to those you can also find sessions that look at Decentralization from a broader angle: shared decision making, self-organization, consent-based decision making, and decentralized publishing.

“Projections” — Photo by Daniel&Kate (unmodified & this license)

The same goes for the concept of Openness. The idea of working in the open is omnipresent throughout MozFest: It’s the idea of sharing resources (code, content or data) and opening it for reuse and remixing, inviting others for participation and collaboration. The idea is the opposite of more closed, solitary, competitive, and hierarchical work environments. The practice of working in the open, as well as the challenges for it, are investigated in many sessions:

Photo by Alexa Steinbrück, licensed under this license

E.g. One session discusses “open datasets in psychology and social sciences”: How to make those data sets accessible and understandable for fellow researchers, learners, and makers?

A session about blind code reviews discusses the impact of gender bias on open source code contributions: How can the separation of contribution and author influence the judgment of code quality?

Photo by Connor Ballard-Pateman / @PinotConoir (unmodified & this license)

Here’s another very subjective selection of sessions at MozFest I found inspiring:

  • Imagining the future we actually want — using a thinking method named “backcasting“ to develop bold and positive visions of the future
  • Rage against the Machine learning — why ML needs your input
  • Demystifying AI — use „Machine-learning-for-kids“ (ML4K) to create your own predictive model
  • Weaving web-native stories through cultural collections — prototyping a web experience around openly licensed works from museums
  • How can we make science and technology queer-inclusive by design?
Photo by Erik Westra (@erikwestra) / Westra & Co. (unmodified & this license)

The audience is super diverse and from various disciplines. I was expecting to find mainly software developers at such an event, but the crowd was actually extremely mixed with scientists, artists, activists, journalists, educators, just to name a few.

I met an autism researcher, a human rights activist focusing on internet censorship and the rights of sex workers, a web developer working on Mozilla’s CommonVoice platform, as well as an artist/dancer who is also doing live-coding. And this is only my tiny personal snippet of the diversity that you will find at MozFest.

What’s remarkable is that it feels like nobody prides themselves on the degree of knowledge and professionalism they have achieved. The feeling of exclusiveness is very much absent. I met many people who seemed to be real experts in their field and they also had an immense curiosity to engage with other topics. This diversity and open-mindedness of the participants is especially visible in the interactive sessions.

„Sessions are designed to encourage active sharing, collaboration and problem solving, so don’t be shy — dive in“

Photo by Connor Ballard-Pateman / @PinotConoir (unmodified & this license)

E.g., in a session called „Rage against the machine learning“ a physicist was attending who researches new materials in her day job and when the workshop topic turned to predict art market prices with the help of machine learning, she light-heartedly said: „Let’s do it! I am flexible!“

In another session titled „Open datasets in psychology & social sciences“ a visual artist was participating who was interested in learning more about licenses. She asked: „Can I reuse the data? Can I distort it?“

Mozfest is intense because of the speed, the diversity of topics and the wealth of ideas and concepts. What I really like about Mozfest is that the way the event is designed really lives up to the values that it promotes, especially the ethos of open (making ideas accessible and understandable) and inclusive (making people feel welcome) which can be seen in action.

That’s me talking with Michael Henretty about how to contribute to Mozilla’s open source speech recognition project || Photo by Connor Ballard-Pateman / @PinotConoir (unmodified & this license)

Everybody feels so approachable and eager to share ideas and knowledge. Often eye contact is enough to spark an interesting conversation and learn something new.

Both workshop leaders and fellow attendees are motivated to explain new concepts and making things easy to understand. Thoughts along the lines of „I am a total novice in this topic! I can not contribute to this!“ are fading fast when you see how welcoming this place is towards people with all levels of knowledge and a variety of viewpoints. It’s true that there is a feeling of comradeship.

In addition to the hands-on sessions, there is a great selection of talks with people like Tim Berners-Lee, Guillaume Charlot, Mitchell Baker and discussion panels on topics like „AI’s collateral damage“.

Mitchell Baker — cofounder and Executive Chairwoman of the Mozilla project || Photo by Erik Westra (@erikwestra) / Westra & Co (unmodified & this license)

These panels and talks are a nice complement if the interactiveness and the participative aspect of MozFest start to feel a bit exhausting or if you personally feel like you’ve used up all your extraversion tickets.

Mozfest is a great event for anyone interested in the future of the internet or into new ways of collaboration and the idea of working in the open. Whether you’re an industry leader, or simply a curious user of technology, you’ll certainly take a lot from a visit to Mozfest. It’ll be back next October, so don’t miss out!

Photo by Erik Westra (@erikwestra) / Westra & Co (unmodified & this license)

Here are some useful links and resources:

  • Details about each session at MozFest 2018 on guidebook
  • Video of the talk by Tim Berners Lee on his latest work
  • Video of the discussion panel about “AI’s collateral damage”
  • The 2018 Internet Health Report
  • One-hour online course by Mozilla about open leadership

A mix of Frontend Development, Machine Learning, Musings about Creative AI and more